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posted: 7/28/2012 5:52 PM

Illini look to senior quartet for leadership

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  • Senior center Graham Pocic has become the leader of the offensive line.

    Senior center Graham Pocic has become the leader of the offensive line.
    Associated Press

By Caitlin Swieca

When Tim Beckman was hired as the new head football coach at Illinois, the first players he had to recruit were in Urbana-Champaign.

They had already been playing for the Illini for three years.

When the regime change occurred, four rising Illini seniors wanted to test the waters of the NFL draft: center Graham Pocic, defensive back Terry Hawthorne, and defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence.

After receiving feedback on their draft prospects, each decided to return for his senior season -- and Beckman is counting on them to lead the Illini into what he hopes will be a new era.

"They've made the commitment to come back, because I challenged them," Beckman said. "It's about building a legacy ... I sure hope that's the start of something special about being a senior and about being the leader of a football team."

Despite having four players chosen in the first 50 picks of the 2012 NFL draft, Illinois went 6-6 in the regular season last year, finishing with 6 straight losses after a hot start.

Beckman is hoping that stronger leadership will prevent any breakdown this year. He chose Pocic and Buchanan to represent Illinois at the Big Ten's media conference, and sees them as leaders on each side of the ball.

Pocic has been at Illinois since spring of 2008, when he graduated from high school a semester early to join the team's spring practices. He said that he was convinced to stay soon after meeting Beckman.

"I was just worried about meeting coach Beckman, seeing what he's all about," Pocic said. "I really wasn't thinking about the NFL too much. When I first met coach Beckman and (offensive line) coach Butkus, it was an easy decision to come back."

In his senior season, Pocic has become a leader of the offensive line, Beckman says, making sure his linemates show up for extra practices and film sessions.

Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said he appreciates the extra work Pocic puts in with the line.

"It's easy for the young guys to follow a guy like him, because they know he cares about them and he cares about what this program is doing," Scheelhaase said. "He's invested a whole lot into it, and now he's just reaping the benefits."

On the other hand, Buchanan uses other leadership methods, Beckman said.

"Graham's the guy who makes sure that everything's going right," Beckman said. "Michael's more of, 'Hey, follow me, watch me do this, you do what I do.' Two different types of leaders, but two that you definitely need."

Buchanan said he was impressed with his coach's honesty as he was assessing his draft prospects.

"He wasn't trying to hide anything with us, which I really respected, because I wouldn't think that a new coach coming in would tell us all the good things that the NFL was saying about me as well as the bad things," Buchanan said. "He told us everything we needed to know."

While Beckman has been preaching honesty, he also preaches accountability, and Buchanan already had to atone for one mistake after he broke his jaw in an altercation in June.

"He knows he made a mistake," Beckman said. "That was something that needed to be corrected, and it was corrected."

Buchanan is now back in football shape and ready for training camp. He said he has been mentoring younger players, such as his backup, redshirt freshman Darrius Caldwell, and has tried to set an example by showing up on time to workouts and practices.

With the high-energy Beckman at the helm, Buchanan hopes he and Pocic can help the team stay consistent throughout the season.

"It's our job not to let the team lag and kind of wear down toward the end of the season," Buchanan said. "We have to play that seventh game or that 10th game the same way we played the first game."

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